Sunday, July 29, 2012

When Presidents Lie

I've been working on a review of a fascinating book by Eric Alterman, "When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences" for another blog that is not yet public.  I had so much info however, I couldn't fit it all into those two blog posts.  Since I'd already done so much writing, I didn't want to let that work go to waste.  So below you will read the summary of Alterman's book.  It's a great read that is well worth the time and effort. 


We now live in a post-truth Presidency.  It is simply expected that Presidents will lie about matters of war and foreign policy.  “The George W Bush Department of Justice argued before the US Supreme Court that his administration required the right ‘to give out false information… incomplete information and even misinformation’ whenever it deemed necessary.  This claim went even further beyond even then Department of Defense official Arthur Sylvester’s famous formulation offered on behalf of President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he claimed, ‘It’s inherent in the government’s right, if necessary, to lie to save itself.’”
Ben Bradlee once ruminated, “Just think for a minute how history might have changed if Americans had known then that their leaders felt the [Vietnam] war was going to hell in a handbasket?  In the next seven years, thousands of American lives and more thousands of Asian lives would have been saved.  The country might never have lost faith in its leaders.”
John Quincy Adams once stated, “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.  But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator of only her own… She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom… She might become the dictatress of the world; she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.” 
Alterman argues that part of the problem is that most US citizens already have opinions about other world areas, opinions that are not rooted in fact, and those opinions are reinforced by a news media that rarely explains the complexities of foreign affairs.  “To complicate matters, this pseudo-environment is further corrupted by the manner in which it is perceived.  Citizens have only limited time and attention to devote to issues of public concern.  News is designed for mass consumption, and, hence, the media must employ a relatively simple vocabulary and linear story line to discuss highly complex and decidedly nonlinear situations.  The competition for readership (and advertising dollars) drives the press to present news reports in ways that sensationalize and oversimplify, while more significant information goes unreported and unremarked upon.  Given both the economic and professional limitations of the practice of journalism, Lippman argued, news ‘comes [to us] helter-skelter.’  This is fine for a baseball box score, a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch.  But where the picture is more nuanced, ‘as for example in the matter of a success of a policy or the social conditions among a foreign people – where the real answer is neither yes or no, but subtle and a matter of balanced evidence,’ then journalism ‘causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding and even misinterpretation.’  And here, it must be added, Lippman was identifying a problem that has since increased in both time and scope, as media sensationalism and public apathy have increased manyfold since the publication of his prophetic work.

Lippmann’s pseudo-environment is not composed only of the information we receive; it consists, in equal measure, of what Lippman terms, ‘the pictures in our heads.’  Voters react to the news through the lens of personal history containing certain stereotypes, predispositions, and emotional associations that determing their interpretations.  We emphasize that which confirms our original beliefs and disregard or denigrate what might contradict them….On the one hand, Americans carry an unrealistic picture of the world ‘in their heads’ – one based on their faith in their own divine direction, disinterested altruism, and democratic bone fides, rather than the realities of politics, force, and diplomacy.  But they remain immune to education regarding these realities, in part because of the power these myths continue to enjoy in our education system, media and larger social discourse, as well as the failures inherent in the practice of democracy.  These faileurs, moreover, are exaggerated in the American case by a particular distaste for the practice of power politics and a media that has insufficient commercial incentive to provide the basics of civil literacy to its audience.  Even those presidents with the best of intentions come to view deception as an unavoidable consequence of a system that simply cannot integrate the unpleasant realities of international diplomacy.  However preferable it might be to tell the truth, the short term costs of lying, given that the culture seems to expect them, are negligible.  And as Friedrich Nietzsche instructed, these temptations are virtually impossible to resist.  While people may desire ‘the agreeable life-preserving consequences of truth [they are] indifferent to pure knowledge, which has no consequences, [and are] even hostile to possibly damaging and destructive truths.’  The long-term costs of lying – at least at the moment the lie is being told – are almost always invisible.  The ultimate costs for this easy calculation, however, are considerable, not only to the nation, and to the cause of democracy, but also to the aspirations and legacies of the presidents themselves.

Whether this situation is remediable depends on one of two possibilities: either future presidents become convinced that the long-term cost of deception outweighs its short-term benefits, or the public matures to the point of seeking to educate itself about the need for complicated arrangements in international politics that do not comport with the nation’s caricatured notion of itself as a force for innocence and benevolence the world over.  The obvious solution would be to convince US presidents the value of substituting a long-term strategic vision in place of their present-minded, short-term tactical view.  But ‘Nothing in politics is more difficult than taking the long view, ‘notes the reporter Ronald Brownstein.  ‘For politicians, distant gain is rarely a persuasive reason to endure immediate pain.  Political scientists would say the system has a bias toward the present over the future.  Parents might say politicians behave like perpetual teenagers.  The problem, for politicians as much as teenagers, is that the future has a pesky habit of arriving.’”

“If the accounts in this book teach us anything, it is that presidents cannot lie about major political events that have potentially serious ramifications- particularly those relating to war and peace – with impunity.  These lies inevitably turn into monsters that strangle their creators.  Had FDR told the truth about Yalta to the country, it is far more likely that the US would have participated in the creation of the kind of world community he envisioned when he made his ultimately counterproductive secret arrangements.  John Kennedy’s deception about the nature of the deal to which he agreed to ensure the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba also proved enormously detrimental to his hope to create a lasting, stable peace in the context of Cold War competition.  Lyndon Johnson destroyed not only his ambitious hopes to create a ‘Great Society,’ but also his own presidency and most of his political reason for being.  And Ronald Reagan, through is lies about Central America, created a dynamic through which his advisers believe they had a right to initiate a secret, illegal foreign and military policy whose aims were almost perfectly contradictory to the president’s stated aims in such crucial areas as dealing with governments deemed to be terrorist.  When it was finally revealed, this disjunction paralyzed US diplomacy and nearly caused the downfall of the Reagan administration as well.  In 1992, it had the effect of undermining George Bush’s second presidential candidacy.

In a better world, future US Presidents would learn the obvious lessons from the experience of their predecessors: Protect geunuine secrets by refusing to answer certain questions, certainly.  Put the best face on your own actions and those of the politicians you support, of course.  Create a zone of privacy for yourself and your family that is declared off-limits to all public inquiry.  But do not, under any circumstances, lie." 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Some Things I'm Learning... or Trying to Learn

As I've shared earlier this year, 2012 is a year in which I'm patiently waiting on God.  It's been a struggle to wait and pray.  I go back and forth by chastising myself for being impatient or chastising myself for being lazy.  I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'm trying to avoid any self-induced pressure at least throughout 2012.

In the midst of the waiting, then here are three things I'm learning trying to learn.

1) To Stay Awake This is motivated by my reading of this book, quoted here.  I have a yellow post-it note stuck on my computer monitor that reminds me to "stay awake."  I'm trying, quite unsuccessfully I might add, to bring my thoughts back to the presence of God throughout my day.  While I'm not very consistent in that discipline, I am growing in another disciple; loving difficult people.  

2) Living out the Love of Jesus With my job as an adjustor for nonstandard (high risk) auto insurance, I work with some very difficult customers.  When I find myself wanting to reach through the phone line and strangle them, I've instead been picking up another post-it note and reading this quote from Mother Teresa, "Dearest Lord, may I seen you today and everyday... though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognize you and say, 'Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you.'"

As soon as I read that quote, my heart rate slows, my voice softens and my desire to speak my mind diminishes.  I actually sense the patient love of Jesus flow through my being.  I've been praying for months for opportunities to share the love of Jesus at my workplace; a difficult thing to do in the sterile, cubicle-ed corporate environment in which serious talk is frowned upon.  While I'm still not sure how to live out a Kingdom life among my coworkers (amongst times I'm swearing under my breath), I've been growing in my patience and love toward our difficult customer base.

3) To Stop Seeking Significance through my Work  This is a very timely and a very difficult lesson.  The difficult part of this lesson is that for or a couple months, it seemed like my 2012 waiting period was going to end halfway through the year as I was a top candidate for a great job at a local university.  This position was a perfect match for my skill set and I thought I'd finally made the difficult entrance into higher education.  Toward the end of the drawn-out hiring process, however I ended up finding myself on the wrong end of some unethical nepotism.  While I'd impressed my potential dean, my potential direct boss decided to hire a friend who didn't even meet the minimum requirements of the position.  I'm still sick to my stomach about the missed opportunity.

The timely part of this lesson is that I'm struggling at my insurance job.  Our reviews, pay raises, bonuses, etc. are based upon a numerical review system.  While I'm above average in some areas, I'm slightly below average in others (though my scores in my areas of struggle appear to be about average compared to the other people hired at the same time as myself).  I'm a part of a 7 person team, however that usually scores among the top of our the group of about 50 teams.  This means my supervisor is not too keen upon my average new-hire scores bringing down the rest of the team.  As a result, I'm on a minor probation period; it's nothing serious as I think it's just to wake me up.  It is however, extremely demeaning.  Very demeaning.  It just seems that I'm gifted in such a way that I've got more to offer the world than being written up by my supervisor for failing to ask the first car of a three car pile-up whether there was any pre-existing damage on the back car of the pile-up.  But that's where I'm at.

Which leads to the fourth thing I'm learning...

4) To Turn Complaints into Thanksgiving  I'll admit it, at times I can be a serious whiner.  The other day, when venting frustration over a pointless procedure to my supervisor (who was patiently listening), I stopped and observed, "it's pointless, but I am getting paid."  Whenever a complaint slips out of my mouth, I try to immediately follow it up with a thanksgiving.  Sometimes it's a stretch but usually there is a bright side to the frustration.  Either way, I'm working to build in myself a good habit.  I've unsuccessfully tried to simply eliminate the habit of complaining.  This approach however, is at least helping to redeem a bad habit and cultivate something positive in myself.  

There it is - a blog post about one month in the making.  I'm not sure when I'll write again, though I am working on some other articles for another blog myself and some friends are about to launch.

Stay tuned.... Or at least don't unsubscribe to me.